UPDATE as of 2/5/2016: I don’t think I can fully support Patara Elephant Farm anymore after I looked deeper into the reality of their practices. For sure, I love how they help these animals breed and how they wholly care for their health. Their team really focuses on that aspect — BUT at the very core… the elephants are still trained and tamed to interact with people, and this just makes me sad. It makes me even more sad and ethically-conflicted that I have unknowingly supported this activity.
Now why do I say this? For instance, I just found out that the reason why all their attendants have shoulder bags with them is because they are hiding their bull hooks in it — just in case the elephants do something that they don’t instruct them to do. I was even properly educated of the fact that if they are still able to interact with tourists and do these rides (even though deemed as safer), then it means that they are still “broken” and tamed. (You will see below as well how they can still perform tricks: raising their trunks, splashing water on us, etc.) For sure some have been rescued from circus so they still know these tricks; but don’t you think it’s a bit cruel to let them continue it everyday as a practice? Remember: elephants are NOT pets. They are meant for the wild. And even if Patara claims to release their elephants in the wild in regular intervals, I fail to see how they’re making them acquainted to the wild when they’re still being subject to human presence day in day out. Apart from that, why can’t they just stop the riding and the tricks altogether?
Additionally, since these animals have been “broken”, there is still a chance that they can show their cruelty after all the harsh treatment they have received — so your safety isn’t exactly guaranteed in Patara (this is why you’ll be signing documents before the experience). We must remember that elephants belong to the wild — they’re not meant to mingle with us humans. With this in mind, if you want a more responsible activity with elephants in Thailand, please go to Elephant Nature Park instead which is also located in Chiang Mai. Meanwhile, I have decided to leave the rest of this article as is and not edit anything to show you HOW the ‘hype’ of the experience has mislead me; but that I hope with this warning at the start, it will highlight to you the things that we did that then proves this claim.
But of course, overall: I leave it up to you to decide whether you will visit Patara or not. In fact, you can visit it yourself so you will see my point — I won’t judge. But it is my wish that this note will urge you to think harder and choose a better activity that does not contribute to the harm of these gentle giants. Better yet, I hope Patara changes its program and function more like that of a nature reserve like Elephant Nature Park.
You should NEVER leave Chiang Mai, Thailand without visiting the Patara Elephant Farm! I swear, this is one of the best travel experiences that my friend—Joanne—and I have ever had! ♥
There are a lot of elephant farms/parks in Chiang Mai and the rest of Thailand that hold different activities with the elephants; sometimes, even forcing them to perform for tourists. Surely, Joanne and I were looking for an elephant place that does NOT mistreat these animals for entertainment or whatnot (because who knows what kind of intensive training the elephants had to go through just to master those tricks). We want something different. So after some research, stories, and recommendations from friends, Joanne suggested that we try Patara out… (It was also the #1 Attraction listed in Trip Advisor) and boy, we were so glad that we settled upon this choice because we had such a GREAT time!
Here are some more facts and details about this experience so that YOU could try it too!
Before I go on, I would like to state that I understand the issue that riding elephants’ backs are a definite NO (especially when you put a chair on top of them) that’s why rest assured, riding on their backs is NOT allowed in Patara Elephant. The safest and approved way to ride them is to sit around their neck; which Patara does. Of course it’s good if you don’t ride them at all; but in a sense, the immersion with Patara is special since you really get to bond with these animals and take care of them like a real elephant owner (mahout) does, with the riding activity done as part of the elephant’s exercise.
Besides, Patara participants can even choose not to ride these elephants at all; what they basically just aim is for you to experience and be exposed to how a regular day goes like for a mahout: looking after their health, feeding, hygiene, reproduction, etc. Usually at the end of the day, these elephants are released in the forest wherein the next day, mahouts would spend hours finding them again to ensure that they are safe and then they continue their daily healthcare routines. (Patara also routinely frees elephants to the wild once they are deemed to be prepared and fit to do so; though most of the time, to prevent them from poachers, circus-owners, and illegal logging individuals that are rampant in Thailand, they would still monitor them from time to time or choose to just keep them in).
FACTS: Patara Elephant Farm The ‘Patara Elephant Farm’ is a Thai-owned farm in Chiang Mai, Thailand that focuses on healthcare and breeding programs for elephants. The owner, Pat Trungpaken, started this in 2001 with a mission of saving the declining elephant population; and so far, he’s very successful with this, since if you check their Facebook page, he regularly posts about the elephant babies as well as birthing stages of each of the current pregnant mother elephants in the farm.
They are also partnered with a Thai tribe (Karen tribe) of mahouts (elephant owners) that are especially monitoring these mammoths. We were even told that the Karen people are assigned one elephant at a time, and that throughout their lives—starting from when they are young up until they are old, when willing—will take care of these elephants. They specifically state that they do not ‘own’ these elephants since they revere to them as sacred animals; they are mainly just their ‘caregivers’.
Taken from their website fand also discussed with us, here are the detailed facts about Patara:
- Adopts/rescues elephants from unsuitable living conditions such as circuses,and illegal logging camps.
- Health and breeding. Focuses on health recovery and natural breeding to increase the elephant population.
- Baby elephants. 14 baby elephants were born in the last 7 years and most of the current female elephants in the farm are pregnant. (This was as of 2011).
- 50 elephants. Number of elephants they have around, to date (including babies).
- Zero death record in their 10 years of operation.
- Sets elephants free. 8 elephants from Patara were set free into the natural habitat and are fine according to the www.elephantreintroduction.org (a special program of reintroducing domesticated elephants into the wild).
- Spacious and big. Provides more open land for elephants than any other places.
- Limited tourism. The only elephant place in Asia that, everyday, has less number of visitors compared to the number of their elephant population since Patara controls the number of their guests.
- Quality Interaction. Provides upper-scale and quality interaction with elephants.
» FACTS ABOUT THAI’S ELEPHANTS:
Asian elephants are smaller and have shorter ears than their African counterparts. In Thailand, these elephants play an important role since in their history, they used to be big ‘tanks’ in battles or carriages for the royals. But apart from that, they are also referred to as bringers of good fortune; and in Buddhism, as a path to enlightenment.
There was a time, however, when Thai elephants were used so much in the logging industry (which was later on a banned industry in 1989 but is still in rampant secrecy) and were also killed or hunted down by poachers. When these two top problems were (somehow) fixed, a more recent dilemma arose: mistreatment by Thai businesses and amusement parks alike. It is said that in the late 80s, there were about 100,000 elephants in Thailand but now, there are just over approximately 4,200: 1,500 in the wild and 2,700 domesticated ones.
There’s still a huge debate as to whether these elephants should be in farms and used for the sake of tourism, however, it is contested that they are expensive to keep in the farms (having to consume 130-300 kilos of food every day for example) so in return, the Thai government permits such farms or parks but regulates them as so.
Patara Elephant Farm is one of the best choices for an elephant place since in here, they combine conservation with education to the visiting tourists and does NOT even do entertainment acts with the elephants (example: playing soccer, painting, etc.). What they rather offer you is to spend a day in the shoes of their mahouts, feeding and taking care of these big but gentle animals.
(Again, like what I discussed above, they have no choice but to let tourists in so that they can also cope with all the expenses and still have their mission of saving elephants sustained.)
» HOW MUCH IS PATARA’S PROGRAM?
Given their special program, beware that they are a bit pricey. For 5-8 hours, almost a whole day, it will cost you ฿5,800 baht per person (around $180 dollars or Php 7,800 Philippine pesos) for the whole program of ‘Elephant Owner for a Day’. Payment should be in cash and will be asked at the end.
Kids, old people, and even disabled persons alike can join the program too! Now I swear, this may come off as cliche, but I mean it: even if it’s pricey, it’s worth it. Every single cent of it.
» HOW TO BOOK/RESERVE?
It’s a must to book with them first. I don’t think they accept walk-ins because they really try to control the number of visitors. (As per #8 fact above). To contact them, either:
Call: +66-81 9922551 or +66 81-6710958
» WHAT TO BRING?
Extra clothes, swimming suit, sunblock otion, and insect spray.
Preferably wear: t-shirt, long pants, and sandals/slippers.
Now what will this package include…?
#1: Transportation At around 7:30AM, a representative of the farm will pick you up from your hotel—and then bring you back too once the program is over.
Joanne and I were picked up by the farm owner: Pat Trungpaken!
Before I go on, let me tell you a funny story… We were very hesitant at first that someone who was riding a black Land Rover car would be the one who was going to pick us up, but we were assured when we started seeing elephant stickers on its mirrors. It’s just that in my mind, since we were going to a ‘farm’, I was thinking along the lines of a big open-aired truck or jeepney that was going to pick us up. (Think Sahara-like trucks!) Okay, that was too much; but you get the idea. This just means that right from the start, we were getting our money’s worth! Express service! :))
Anyways, it was such a joy to meet Pat, and an honor to have met him personally. He was also very friendly, and had even helped recommend places around town that we should try in the next days of our vacation.
It took us almost an hour to drive from our hotel (Sakulchai Place) to the farm.
#2: Introduction to the Farm Once we arrived, we saw 6 other mahout-wannabes (like us!) sitting under a hut who have obviously also availed the program. And in the not-so-far distance… the free-roaming* elephants!!!!
I guess Pat sensed my intense desire to come rushing into the elephants like mad, so he quickly launched into a brief ‘talk’ with all of us (maybe in an attempt to stop me from my tracks) so he shared what Patara Elephant Farm is all about: how they started, how they acquired the elephants, etc.etc. (which I have already shared to you guys above this post).
*NOTE: Free-roaming! Meaning they weren’t chained up at all. If you ever see a chained elephant in the farm, most likely it is either of these two reasons (but most of the time it’s #2):
- The elephant is newly rescued and needs to be separated from the other elephants since they could get quite violent. Remember that some of the elephants in Patara have been rescued from harsh environments, so in their initial introduction to the farm they will have to ‘contain’ them and soothe them down for some time.
- The elephant is a male (bull) elephant that is in musth: a period wherein they are at their most aggressive state and have an extreme hormonal surge. In a simpler and understandable term: when they are horny. They can really be out of control and can even kill their handlers. They might also attack a female elephant who is not in ‘heat’ and that can lead to bruises or even death.
#3: Meeting the Karen Tribe and Pairing with the Elephants Before we go on, we were advised to leave our bags (the staff will take care of it) and to change our clothes (with the swimwear underneath). Like I said previously, the Karen tribe are the ‘caregivers’ of these elephants in Patara and apparently, they usually wear a certain kind of patterned clothing. We were told that in order to help the elephants visually associate us with their tribe, we had to wear the below (which they have provided):
Funky! The pants are also provided, which will help shield us from the elephant’s thick hair later on when we are going to ride them.
And then finally… the pairing! At this time, Jack was introduced to us (an assistant of Pat) and he told us that in the farm, they pair their elephants to their visitors according to their age, height, built, and personality. When it was my turn, Jack told me that I was going to be paired with Noi and her baby, Tara! (OMG My personality is motherly! LOL). Noi was apparently rescued from a circus, and she’s currently 40 years old now. Tara on the other hand is only 1 year old, and also a favorite baby elephant in the farm.
I could understand why because Tara was sooooooo playful and ‘all over the place’. Example, during our mini ‘talk’ with Jack, she kept going in to our circle, poking her trunk around and nudging Jack to pat her.
But at this point, I still haven’t touched them or met them ‘officially’ yet because we were still being briefed on the next activity, which was…
#4: Feeding the Elephants Jack made a brief demonstration on how we can feed the elephants. To make them approach you, say ‘Ma’!
(Note: Do not approach an elephant from a direction where it cannot see you. Don’t surprise them.) And then say ‘Bon!’ to the elephant to make it raise its trunk and open its mouth, and then pop the food in.
After this, I was finally introduced to my elephants, as well as their mahout, named Eh. (I’m actually not sure if that’s how it’s spelled, but that’s how he made me pronounce it, haha!) Eh was very young and very friendly too. He was wearing the same tribal clothing and I noticed that unlike what other farms may have, he had NO sticks or bullhooks with him. He was just simply standing there watching his elephants and feeding them like mad.
And so, Noi and Tara! Oh goodness, when I was finally eye-to-eye with Noi, I realized how big she really was… and for a moment I was a bit scared, but Eh told me that there’s no reason to.
He then handed me this basket full of sugar canes and bananas; food that I will give to Noi and Tara so that they can warm up to me! :)
I swear, there really wasn’t a need for some ‘special time’ to warm up because just the sight of me carrying this basket full of food to them was enough to put Noi and Tara into a frenzy mode of LOVING me like crazy!
They were like: “OH MY GOD. MORE FOOD. YAY! GIVE IT TO ME! GIVE IT TO ME! GIVE. IT. TO. MEEEEEEEE! I WUUUUV YUUUU!”
Really. They are such gluttons, because starting from when we arrive we already see them eating a lot of greenery that are laid down on the ground for them. And now, they still want more! It really is true that they can gulp down kilos and kilos of food!
*You can see a video at the bottom of this post that will show ‘snippets’ of our fun activity. :)
Now at this point, any hint of anxiousness that I have in my system was gone. Noi and Tara were just so kind and gentle that it would be wrong to even fear them!
There were times that while I was putting the food into Noi’s mouth, I feared that my timing would be so slow that he might chomp my hand off. LOL. But that wouldn’t be possible. Their teeth is way at the back of their mouth, so if their chomping is faster than you thought, it’s fine if your hand gets squished in between.
#5: Checking the Elephants’ Health We had to put a pause to our ‘playing’ and ‘feeding’ time with the elephants because now, we have to learn how to identify a healthy elephant and also on how to check their well-being.
To generally check if they’re doing well and are happy, much like a dog, they should be flapping their ears and wagging their tails.
Other than that, there are four things to consider too and they are:
- Toenails should be wet. Because elephants only sweat around their nail beds, where their cuticles would be.
- The part near their eyes should be wet. They do not have tear ducts, so their eyes are always watering, and it is said that unhealthy elephants have dry eyes.
- Their poop should be round, grassy-smelling, and wet. Their feces are big round green-y chunks that when smelled, the scent should be a bit grass-y and not so foul-smelling. I mean it will still smell foul, but not so bad. It also should be fiber-y when you break it down, and when you squeeze it, ‘juices’ should come out.
- They slept lying down on the ground. It is a sign that they are healthy. Elephants who are sick will sleep standing up and they would often lean their head against a tree or something sturdy to stay up. The reason is that, if a sick elephant lays down, they won’t be able to stand up again and will eventually die. We can tell if an elephant slept lying down by seeing if they have dirt or mud marks on their sides.
Indeed, each of us did these checks on our elephants, even the poop-activity too :P
Noi and Tara were perfectly healthy! Even happy; maybe way too happy! I don’t know, but you can just feel it if an animal is really happy and at ease with its surroundings, and I just get that kind of feeling from all the elephants here in Patara.
#6: Riding the Elephants When you’re in Patara, they ensure the best for their elephants so they make it a point that these elephants have enough exercise every day. For that to happen, a part of their program is to walk them from the farm to a waterfall called Khaw Tar Chang.
(Actually, this walking thing from the farm to the waterfall has a double-purpose since it does not only ensure the elephant’s well-being [exercise] but also their hygiene since washing them every day is something that should be done.)
So how will we go along with them? Either to walk by their side or to ride them. Now the worst thing that you can ever do is to ride them on a box or chair, much like what you usually see in Thailand or Africa pictures because that can hurt their back, irritate their skin, and cause sores. The safest and approved way to ride them is to sit around their neck.
But before you can ride them on their neck, remember that elephants love to throw soil or dirt on their head and back to protect themselves from insect bites and also to shoo the insects away. So first, we have to clean that dirt off since the pebbles and dirt could irritate their skin from the ‘riding’ friction. To do this, we were given a bunch of leaves that we would use to sweep it all off.
To make them sit down, we just say ‘Nao-long!’. It was funny while I was sweeping Noi’s back because she looked like she was really enjoying it. At times, she would lift her trunk, and would even lie down and nudge me to sweep off an area that she likes on her back! :))
Oh you like this spot right here? Sure, no problem, Noi!
There were different ways to ride the Patara elephant. You can go up by using their right leg as support, their trunk, or while they are sitting down. (*You can see the video at the bottom of this post to see how*)
I chose to try going up Noi by using her right leg as support, and good thing I managed to go up!
And once I was up there, whoa… Noi is really big and tall. Okay enough with the obvious, but seriously, it was a nice feeling to be able to go on top of Noi bareback and barefoot. It really felt like I was one and the same with Noi and nature.
Like, do you remember that childhood wish where you wanted to be like Pocahontas or Tarzan? I just felt that nostalgic feeling rushing throughout my body, and it was refreshing!
…Also, if I may add, I felt like I am actually Noi’s real mahout and not Eh. :P
#7: Bareback Trekking with the Elephants To ensure that they have enough exercise, we had to make the elephants move and walk over to Khaw Tar Chang waterfall so that we can bathe them there. So this involved riding them bareback from the farm, towards the road, through a river, and then eventually arriving at the waterfall. After the waterfall, it is through the forest, to the road, and then the farm.
(2nd Photo) Tara immediately splashed into the water when we reached the river!
One person from our group became afraid when we were walking through the forest because indeed, we were walking on a trail that is on the edge of a cliff. I couldn’t blame her for being afraid, but somehow, I trusted these animals. Much like me, I bet they are afraid of falling off the trail as well so they’re very careful too. So I guess that’s how I managed to stay calm all throughout the journey.
I think that kind of thinking should help you too; and besides, they’ve gone through this trail for numerous times already so they are very used to it. The mahouts are even around to always help; so again, no worries! :)
It was funny at times because like always, since these elephants are such gluttons, they would often stop to pry away a branch or a bunch of grass if they see it appetizing enough. :))
Tip: If going up a slope, lean your body forward; if going down a slope, lean your body backward. And say ‘Didi!’ as much as you could to the elephants. It’s like telling them: ‘good boy!’
Also, if you notice, Tara is always around her mother; it is natural for babies to stay with their mom’s side during a journey, and it was cute watching Noi get all protective of Tara if she goes away too far from our line. (Well Tara is so restless, she’s practically everywhere sometimes whenever we stop walking!)
#8: Bathing and Scrubbing the Elephants It is extremely important to bathe elephants every day so as to prevent flies laying eggs on their skin and also to cool them off from the heat. Before we had to do it though, we were told to change into our swimwear, and then they briefed us on what we should do when bathing the elephants.
Jack and the rest of the mahouts told us that we should wash and scrub the elephants thoroughly. We could even scrub harder because the elephants like it that way; but, we just have to make sure that we are scrubbing in the direction of their skin’s pattern/print, or else we might irritate their skin.
…Ladies and gents, I must say that this was the part of the day that I best enjoyed (despite the pain that it caused to my legs—’pain’ because Noi and Tara were really playful!)
Noi loved to occasionally submerge her whole body underwater while I’m scrubbing her (so sometimes, she can drag me under with her too) whereas Tara, and another elephant baby, LOVED to play around Noi! It was some sort of play time where they sometimes do a ‘body slam’ on Noi and me…
I say ‘body slam’ because their weight could really hurt my legs, but I bet in ‘elephant customs’, it’s a way of affection because Noi even sort of encouraged them. Sometimes, if Noi gets too playful herself, she will splash water on these two elephant kids and me, using her trunk! :D
If you want to see snippets of the actual scrubbing/bathing, watch the video at the bottom of this post!
After taking ample time to bathe these elephants, we then took some more photos along with the the other people that were with us that day in this program.
#9: Free Thai Lunch Nothing beats a good Thai lunch after a tiring day, and so, as part of the whole Patara experience, we were given this scrumptious lunch full of fruits, desserts, and sticky rice FROM HEAVEN. I loved it!
And holy macaroni… the lanzones here were divine! It was sweet and full of flavor! We have lanzones in the Philippines, but not as good as this! The chicken wasn’t something note-worthy, but you should definitely try the Thai sticky rice that they offer as well as the assorted desserts that they have thrown in to the bunch (which I forgot what their names are. Sorry!)
After a hearty lunch, I think the elephants knew that we were finished so imagine how they rushed in to our small hut, devouring any edible leftover in sight! Haha!
She saw the commotion, so off she goes to see if there’s still some lunch food left!
#10: DVD and CD of Pictures and Videos Most of the pictures that I posted in this blog entry is from Jack, who was also the ‘photographer’ of the Patara team. The videos weren’t as good, but better something than nothing! :)
All these photos and videos will be compiled in one CD and each of you will receive this upon payment.
FACT: At the end of the day, after feeding them enough food, the elephants are set free in the forest; and come the next day, the mahouts will do the job of finding them (it can take hours) so that they can do the same routine again: feeding, health check, bath, etc.
I am very thankful that Joanne and I found out about Patara because this was such a meaningful activity for us, especially since the elephants are such gentle and heart-warming creatures despite their towering size and built. ♥ ♥ ♥
I really think that this is the time to explore and see more of the world, and Patara Elephant Farm is one of those once-in-a-lifetime places/experiences that you should absolutely try. As I am writing this, I am starting to miss that day because it was such a joy to be around these elephants; of course, specifically, with Noi and Tara. They were so wonderful and sweet, and I promise I’m gonna come back here, and I hope to see the two of them again! I feel very blessed that I was paired with this mother-and-daughter pair, because my day with them was worthwhile and I’ve never felt so at one with nature.
Again, like I said: this is a must-try! I hope you get to experience being an elephant owner for a day and if you do, let me know how it worked out for you! If you have any questions, feel free to comment below. :)
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I am Aileen Adalid. At 21, I quit my corporate job in the Philippines to travel the world. Today, I am a digital nomad (entrepreneur & travel writer) living a sustainable travel lifestyle.
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